Thursday, December 12, 2013

Ra-Haku - Shin-Yokohama Raumen Museum! - Japan 11/2013

A lot of this trip was spent catching up on things we've never had time for before; the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum (or "Raumen Museum" as it says on their bags) was one of those. You'd have to think it'd be a unique experience, plus good food is at least implied. My wife always thought it was super small and not worth going to, though, so we always pushed it way down on the priority list. Until now...

This is a scene from the truly unfortunate movie "Map of the Sounds of Tokyo", several scenes of which are inexplicably set inside the Ramen Museum even though none of the characters live or work anywhere near it. We'd just watched this movie, so despite it being depressingly bad, the museum was fresh in our minds and we decided to finally make the trek to Yokohama.

This sign is stupidly the only photo I took of the exterior. It's not that impressive anyway; it kind of looks like the entrance to a movie theater (and it's a little hard to find even with a GPS-enabled smartphone), although as is true everywhere in Japan, there are far more women in uniform than you'd expect standing around waiting to usher you inside.

A one-day ticket costs ¥300. Interestingly, I think a 3 month ticket was only something like ¥600 - my wife and I were saying it actually seemed like a decent deal if you worked around there and just wanted to go for lunch once in a while. You do still need to pay for the ramen itself whatever type of ticket you buy, but it's cheap and good and there are a lot of choices.

Here's the ticket and brochure - you can get them in several languages. There's some basic info about ramen and a rundown of the different shops in the museum there. We didn't really look at it, though - we just looked at the pictures on the wall as soon as you walk in to decide where to eat.

The place is small but we were honestly quite impressed. I somehow hadn't gotten this from other pictures I've seen but it's modeled to look like a typical Japanese city of 1958. I'd previously thought it was just really run down! They picked that year because it was when instant ramen was invented. Kind of an odd thing to celebrate; sort of like a "Spaghetti Museum" picking a date to celebrate the opening of the first Olive Garden.

There's a huge amount of attention to detail - this is a little "town" that runs around the side of the building, and it feels totally authentic. There are even a few real shops in here that you can go into - it's not just decoration. Since it runs all the way around the building, it actually feels like a pretty long walk, and makes the whole place feel bigger.

Period signs and weathering. They've even got the clothes on the clothesline. (A common sight still today, but you just wouldn't necessarily expect that level of extra detail at a ramen museum.)

The place we picked to eat at is called Komurasaki. They specialize in tonkotsu ramen from Kyushu. Tonkotsu is probably my favorite style, although I like shoyu ramen too and I can eat miso ramen if it's good.

To order your ramen, you first need to pick what you want from a period-style vending machine and get a ticket. This system is common in Japan; the idea is you don't spend 20 minutes with your butt taking up a seat while you stare at a menu inside the restaurant. Even at the ramen museum, you're meant to be in and out when you actually eat.

Unfortunately this system does ensure that you can (and probably will) get stuck behind a bunch of idiots like anywhere else. We seemed to have a junior high school class trip from China in front of us at this machine, so we were waiting for them to make their choices and buy their tickets for about 15 minutes.

This was our ramen and gyoza. I think I just got the regular with extra meat. It was incredibly good, as you'd expect from a place that's been in business since 1954. I wouldn't say it was better than the best I'd ever had, but it came pretty close. The meat did melt in my mouth; the broth was really well balanced; the noodles were tender and fresh.

BIRU!! This place makes their own. It was interesting, in a microbrew sort of way. It tasted vaguely Belgian, which I wasn't really expecting. It was good, though.

The place bills itself as both a museum and "amusement park". We weren't sure what that meant, but as we were walking around after eating, we saw this guy setting up... for what we didn't know at the time. We decided to see what he was planning. Have you ever seen a contact juggler? I've seen them in YouTube videos, but never one in person - it is quite mesmerizing even if you know exactly how they're doing it. This is the guy we saw:

I believe he's somewhat older and better now than in that video (he looks about 12 there), but that's the only video he seems to have up of himself. He also tried regular juggling with seven balls (you try it - I've never seen anyone do it successfully before) and that took him three tries to get right, but he finally did. But his contact juggling was perfect and we were both hypnotized. We gave him ¥500 at the end.

On our way out we stopped at the museum shop (which includes a giant slot car track for some reason). I didn't get pics of the shop but this is one of the things we bought there, as a gift for SCANDAL at their concert the next day. (I also bought some ramen for my nieces back in the US.) This is a ramen set; four packages of ramen from the places in the museum. One of them is Komurasaki, the place we ate at.

The neat thing about the ramen they sell there is that it's fresh. I went a little nuts on Minca in NYC here a few years ago because they seemed proud of using dried noodles, and I went even more ballistic on the NY Times for dismissively saying noodles were "the easy part" of ramen. You can totally taste and feel the difference between fresh and dried ramen noodles. It's like saying dried spaghetti is just as good as fresh, because the only part of a spaghetti dinner that matters is the sauce. No!

Definitely recommend this place. It's pretty tiny but cheap and jam packed full of eye candy - no corner of it hasn't been touched by someone trying (and succeeding) to make it look authentically old, like something out of an original Godzilla movie. And the ramen is good!

Monday, December 02, 2013

Cup no Fuchiko-san - Miss Cup Edge - Japan 11/2013

This was funny.

One of Japan's big memes right now is "Cup no Fuchikosan", these little capsule toy girls meant to sit on the edge of your cup. The name itself is a play on words - "fuchi" means "edge". They come in all different poses. My wife and I spent our entire dinner at Hooters Ginza playing with them. We got a lot of attention from the waitresses.

Apparently this has been going on for months now, but it was just on TV when we were there so there was another big run on these toys. We searched around all over for them and finally found them in a Tokyu Hands, which had a big display.

People have gotten really creative with these and now there are photo books and all manner of merchandise related to them. Amazon Japan has 11 pages worth of results for "Cup no Fuchikosan"!

We bought them in their original form, as capsule toys. Opposite that display above was a bank of capsule machines in the middle of the floor.

So cute!

Sunday, December 01, 2013

Daikanransha - Giant Sky Wheel - Odaiba - Japan 11/2013

This is Daikanransha, at one time the tallest ferris wheel in the world. It's still pretty goddang tall, but since 2000 a bunch of other bigger wheels have been built, and it's now in lowly 12th place.

But like SkyTree, it's a landmark that you can see from practically all over Tokyo (which means the reverse is also true), especially at night when it's lit up like a Christmas tree. I've always wanted to ride it. I've got pics and video of it going back to the early 00's, but somehow just never made it there before now.

Daikanransha's in Odaiba, which I've actually been to several times before - but mostly to go to Sega Joypolis and Yo! Tekoya. Odaiba is a really strange area - home to some wild architecture, headquarters to media like Fuji TV, and otherwise mostly populated by things to amuse yourself with. It's like a giant arcade with office buildings.

Here's Zepp Tokyo, a major nightclub/live house venue that a bunch of my favorite Japanese bands have played at. I never even realized it was here - it is literally right next to Daikanransha.

Because of what there is in Odaiba, and also what there isn't much of (housing), the island is always dead if you go on a weekday. There are people there, but they're mostly in the office buildings working. The malls, parks and amusement areas are always completely deserted. (It is probably very different on nights and weekends.)

I've always kind of wanted to stay in Odaiba for all those reasons - there's a ton of fun stuff to do, and it's just wide open most of the time - no crowds, no waiting. There are a few hotels, but you do have to deal with the fact that it's kind of a trek to get to the main part of the city. It's like staying in Staten Island if you go to New York (if Staten Island had a lot more going on).

There are two options - you can ride the standard color gondola or the "all clear" version that lets you see through the floor and ceiling. In keeping with our policy of always taking the special option, we rode the clear gondola.

Here's our clear gondola on the way... you've gotta be ready to run on as soon as they call you.

Here's the ground from the bottom and floor of our gondola. I was a little freaked out through a lot of the ride, although my wife was fine. None of the clear gondola looks structural; it all looks like it's going to fall apart. The plexiglass was very thin, and the frame seriously just looked decorative. As we went up, it really did feel like just being out in the open air.

Part of the view on the way up. If you look close, you can see Tokyo Tower on the left and SkyTree on the right. (SkyTree is a lot further away, which is why they look the same height.) This is looking towards "downtown" Tokyo, if there is such a thing. On the opposite side is mostly water.

There was some sort of drifting thing going on in the distance. Sorry about the music - the only natural sound during this video was my wife talking. (This music makes me laugh anyway.)

Going up over the top! It actually was really windy that day and we were bobbing around all over the place. I could also feel the whole wheel swaying, which was a little disconcerting. I kept telling myself this thing hasn't blown over in 14 years, it's probably not going to happen now.

I snapped a few good shots of the wheel on the way out.

Couldn't help but stop at this arcade on the way out! This place was massive and nearly completely empty. We played some mini-bowling, and of course I had to sit down for some Wangan Midnight 4, one of my favorite racing game series ever.

Oh, and of course... !

We made the trek over to Yo! Tekoya again - it's a crime to go to Odaiba and miss it.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Nasu Highland Park - Japan 11/2013

My in-laws wanted to go on a little day trip while my wife and I were in Japan, and they picked the little mountain town of Nasu. This is kind of a resort area in summer and ski area in winter, but at other times of year it's got one big claim to fame: Nasu Highland Park. Oh, and monkeys, as I found out later.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Foooooooooood! - Japan 11/2013

Whenever I come home from Japan, I really, really miss the food. And I'm not just talking about stereotypical Japanese things like sushi and sashimi and ramen... well, ok, maybe ramen. But other things too. I've written about Kobe beef, tonkatsutaco rice and other Japanese fast food before, but every time I go there I feel like we eat really well, and this time I ended up gaining 5 pounds in 11 days (yikes!).

I confess I'm not always the best food photographer and my phone is not always the best camera, but here's a little pictorial ode to some of the best meals we had on this trip:

Our hotel at Nasu Highland Park had a great shabu shabu restaurant. This is the style of cooking where you boil thinly sliced meat yourself, along with vegetables and other things, then eat them with rice and sauces. We had beef and pork in several different broths.

The one on the right is a pork broth. I think the one on the left was just a chicken broth. Both added a ton of flavor to the meat. No further seasoning needed. We had another pot going that had other stuff in it too.

Usually when you see shabu shabu on American TV, they show the hosts just dipping the meat in for a second before quickly taking it out. That's not quite right - you're going to get sick from eating raw meat. (Look at this Martha Stewart clip - see how she keeps taking the meat out and wants to eat it immediately, whereas the Japanese guy just leaves his piece sitting in the broth? Martha, you're doing it wrong!)

You're not even really supposed to use the same chopsticks - you pick up the raw meat with one set, then pick up the cooked meat with another. (My wife knew this already, but the waitress was careful to point it out just in case.)

These are udon noodles! Everywhere you go has their own noodle style. These noodles were about as thick as a finger! We used these to finish off the broth after eating up all the meat. It was actually really good - it was like gnocchi.

I'm going to write a separate post on Nasu Highland Park itself, but this was from a 50's style American diner inside the park. This burger wasn't very American but I learned long ago to get over that hangup - nothing "American" in Japan really is, it's always a crazy mashup. This had a demi-glace sauce on it - Japan loves its demi-glace, they put it on everything. Those tater tots were the best tater tots I've ever had - incredibly light and crispy. Japanese fried food comes with all the trans fat you can eat, so you know it tastes good!

In New York, this dish would be illegal. Yes, that's raw chicken. (I don't think they called this "chicken sashimi", because it doesn't quite qualify.) It was actually tasty! Ironically the part that I could not eat was the vegetables.

I would not have had the guts to order this myself - this was at a bar/restaurant that a couple of business associates of ours took us to, and this simply appeared in front of us. My wife laughed beforehand because they asked us "can you eat chicken?" Little did we know...

We got about seven different chicken courses there. I wish I knew the name of this place - it had great atmosphere and I was mesmerized watching the bartender's technique for getting the perfect head on a beer every time. But we were just dumped in a taxi and eventually arrived there. It was the kind of place without a sign, hidden in the back of a building on the second floor.

Believe it or not, this was at a highway rest stop in between Ibaraki and Nasu! I didn't have one of these but my wife and everyone in her family did. My in-laws just ate them like popsicles, although my wife ate hers more like an American, picking around all the bones and steering clear of the head and tail.

I mentioned Brise Verte in my post about the Prince Park Tower hotel - this was the sashimi salad that started our price fixe set. All the dishes they served us were really pretty - cell phone pics really don't do them justice. It looked like they had placed every individual element on every plate separately by hand.

Of course there was plenty of ramen. This was at the Ramen Museum in Yokohama - a post's coming about that place too. This was really good. This place also makes their own beer. (All the restaurants inside the museum are independent shops like you'd find on the street, which is kinda the point of the museum.)

This is ramen at Yo! Teko-ya in Odaiba, which is still the best ramen in the world, or at least in my world. I wanted another bowl, but you know just one of these is like 1,500 calories and an entire day's worth of cholesterol. Not that I was watching my weight (again, I packed on an extra 1/2 pound per day, which is 1,750 extra calories above what I normally eat, every single day), but you gotta draw the line somewhere.

I even love coffee in Japan, which is based more on French and Italian style coffee than American coffee. They have a separate thing on the menu called "American Coffee" that's supposed to be weaker. Since I can't get decent decaf anywhere in Japan without waiting for them to make it from scratch (which they are always happy to do, but I am usually not happy to wait), I almost always just order a cappuccino. This one was at Cafe Dotour, a chain like Starbucks - I love Dotour because a) they use real china, and b) they do cappuccino art!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Tokyo Dome City and Thunder Dolphin - Japan Trip 11/2013

Practically in the middle of what you might call "downtown" Tokyo, there is an amusement park. There is also a domed stadium, which is itself pretty unique for a major city this size. This would be like putting a stadium and amusement park on 14th Street in Manhattan.

It's all tied together by - what else? - a giant shopping mall. Everything in Tokyo is tied together by a giant shopping mall. (New York has nothing on Tokyo for shopping - it's not even close.) This is Tokyo Dome City.

We went there coincidentally on a day when the boy band Kanjani8 were having a concert. It was just a sea of teenage Japanese girls everywhere.

Being neither a teenage Japanese girl nor a creeper, I did not go there for Kanjani8 nor their fans. I went there for...


That is a roller coaster track going through a building. This was my introduction to Thunder Dolphin - the first image of it I saw.

This was the second:


I love roller coasters and I'm not usually afraid of them. But this thing looks like it was just bolted haphazardly onto the side of an existing building with no regard for safety. It doesn't look like anyone actually designed it, it just looks like something Bob the property manager drew on a napkin in the hopes of making some extra money. It just looks crazy.

In fact, unbeknownst to my wife and I, Thunder Dolphin was closed for three years because a giant bolt fell off in 2010 and hit a 9 year old kid in the head. (He was injured but apparently lived.) It reopened just this summer.

I knew that the more afraid of it I got, the more I had to ride it. The day I run away from a roller coaster with my tail between my legs is the day I may as well just check in to a nursing home.

So I rode it.

This is not my video, but just to give you an idea of what it's like, check this out - despite the ill-advised slo-mo at the top of the hill, this video most closely approximates the craziness of this ride's first half of all the YouTube vids I looked at:

My wife and I have ridden a lot of coasters together (including ten more just a week earlier at Nasu Highland Park - more on that later). Both of us agreed this was the most intense we've ever been on. The urban setting makes a huge difference.

First of all, the only restraint you have is a lap bar, which is a little concerning right from the start. Then the hill climb is both really steep and really fast. The first drop feels like it's going to toss you right out over that lap bar. That first turn is about 90 degrees and it feels like you're just out in the empty air - it doesn't look like there's anything holding you up. That happens again at the next turn... and then you've gotta go through a hole in a building.

You can see in the video that the coaster then pretty amazingly cuts through a ferris wheel:

That's the "Big O", which we rode as well. I love ferris wheels for the exact opposite reason I love coasters - so relaxing! I shot this video of Thunder Dolphin from it, though - yes, this is my video:

My wife was doing the same thing, obviously. That's not our music, by the way - they have a little mp3 player on the side of the... gondola? But we couldn't figure out how to use it so we just left it on the default. Something about it makes me laugh every time I watch this.

Tokyo Dome City has some other rides too, but mostly they're smaller and it didn't seem worth paying either the separate fee or the day pass price to ride them. Even though it was early November when I shot all this, it was already Christmas everywhere in Japan. So we just hung around until sundown to see the "Christmas Illumination" which they had advertised all around. (It's not "Holiday Illumination" even though Japan is largely a Buddhist country - it's Christmas.) Had to have some crepes first, though:

The real reason I took that picture is the bubble tea, which a lot of people I know think of as Japanese, but it actually is not common there at all. In fact, this place had big signs advertising it because it's kind of exotic. It really is more Chinese than Japanese. This was the first time I'd actually seen it in Japan.

The Christmas lights were pretty cool, although I wish they lit up Thunder Dolphin a bit better.

You gotta put it on the bucket list if you're a coaster fan.

About This Blog

This is increasingly not a blog about Alphabet City, New York. I used to live in the East Village and work on Avenue B, but I no longer do. Why don't I change the name if I'm writing about Japan and video games and guitars? Because New Yorkers are well-rounded people with varied interests, and mine have gone increasingly off the rails over the years. And I don't feel like changing the name. I do still write about New York City sometimes.


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